When I woke up I was half hanging off of the bed. On the floor directly below my face was a pool of wet vomit. I pulled myself back fully onto the bed and couldn’t remember what had happened at first, then it hit me when I saw the empty pill packets and the beer cans. I picked up the packets – two strips of 30mg codeine, one strip of tramadol, two of generic paracetamol and a half filled container of phenelzine. Two six packs of heineken – the little cans that look like tiny beer kegs – were empty and scattered near the bedside table.

The room was filled with my belongings in cardboard boxes, the curtains were drawn but it was obviously morning outside. I wiped the last of the sick away from my mouth on the duvet and sat on the edge of the bed and cried. I thought I’d taken enough to do the job but the final pathetic truth was I couldn’t even kill myself properly. I sobbed because I was still alive, punching the bed in terrified frustration I’d failed.

Looking at my watch – it was Monday morning, 6am – I found that I’d been unconscious since Saturday afternoon. I didn’t remember anything except popping out all the tablets quickly and washing them down with lots of beer. No final thoughts, no suicide note, and no cryptic text messages in the hope they’d be deciphered and I’d be found in a dramatic pose and saved. I had meant to die.

I got up, looked in the dim mirror and my two big blue eyes stared back like a strangers. I wiped off the tear tracks, robotically put on my shoes, and walked for the bus to work. Another day, a day I hadn’t intended to see but I’d see it anyway. More new terror, more doubt, and more self-loathing.

Maybe I’d hang myself when I got in.


Pulp Fiction Overdose

There is a set standard procedure for bringing a person who has overdosed on heroin back from the brink. It’s fairly simple and it’s also widely misunderstood – largely because of the famous scene in Pulp Fiction. There is no adrenaline shot to the heart – there is no adrenaline at all – what there is, is a large dose of a drug called naltrexone, given intravenously to any available vein. Naltrexone is a nasty little drug, a life-saver, but a nasty little drug all the same. It works by muscling the opiate molecules off the receptors in your brain, then it sits there. In essence, to the user, it means a complete and rapid withdrawal. It saves many lives.

The views of ambulance crews towards their heroin using patients vary. One crew will give sympathy, the other will sigh heavily and take less care with fragile veins and a bewildered return to consciousness. Some addicts overdose in flats and are simply rolled out onto the pavement, others are collapsed in cars, on sofas, and on bathroom floors. One client of mine overdosed on methadone – he’d just gotten too greedy one evening with 100ml of the green juice he’d bought – and had gone over in his parents house, come back round, then spent eleven hours sitting naked sideways on the toilet so he could vomit into the sink while he shat himself. He was ten hours into it when I turned up and called an ambulance. They didn’t rush.

And overdosing on heroin is incredibly easy. Smoking it drastically reduces the risk, but injecting the stuff is almost like running blindfolded across a busy motorway. Some develop better hearing and survive, others are lucky, but there are more than you’d think who get hit. How much would it take to kill you or me right now – assuming you aren’t cultivating a heroin habit of your own at the moment? Well tolerance varies, but in my former professional opinion you and I would be turning blue if we injected just the residue left in a cigarette filter used to cook up a hardcore user’s normal morning hit. It’s that small. And it happens. 

Steve left jail with all the hopes in the world. At 27 he still had a long life to look forward to. He was intelligent, good looking, and savvy, real street quick-brained which he could have turned to anything. Eton educated stockbrokers had nothing on Steve in terms of his wit and ability to problem solve. About a month after he was released I got word he was dead. He’d overdosed from an injection prepared from the used filter of another mate’s dig. No extra heroin at all. Just the residue of a cooked up fag filter. It was a miniscule amount. He’d lain dead for two weeks in the summer heat in the flat he’d just taken out a rent agreement on. When they found his bloated body it was apparent his “friends” had robbed him of what little property he had, they had even taken his jeans from his body, and his trainers. He lay face down, semi naked, dead from misadventure, or so they’d define it.

The trick of heroin is that to achieve the desired result – a warm and fuzzy half-sleep – you need to tread as close to the edge as possible. The closer you get to it, the better the experience, but the consequences of stepping an inch over the thin line are severe. Pleasurable peace and tranquility lay on one side, death on the other and there is never any way of telling where the line is or how quickly you’ll get to it. Some toddle up gently and back off, others rush forwards at great speed and keep going. Few ever really get it right. It’s the curse of heroin.

When I learned of Steve’s death I wasn’t just sad, I was angry that it had to happen. I questioned why I was working in the field I’d fallen into and I desperately tried to figure out how anyone could learn from it. The truth, sadly, was that nobody learned anything new of any use whatsoever except perhaps his mother – who discovered a whole new level of pain. The life of a heroin addict is cheap, and that’s just how the government likes it. A dead addict can’t steal, can’t clog up A&E departments with their collapsed veins and deep vein thrombosis, and they won’t ever pester you for small change in the street. Being a heroin addict defines who you are and the given definition is “scum”. 

I like to think something will change at some point, but I’m not holding out for it. Not enough people are really bothered about the underworld, the fractured lives of the underbelly of society. And in any case, change now may come too late. It did for Steve.

Know your poison.

“You can turn your back on a knife, but never turn your back on a drug.” – HST

Despite having revelled in the pure madness and beauty of LSD, I figured that something would have to be paid back to the universe before I got too old. You can’t keep on pumping a substance into your brain that powerful without some serious consequences at some point. But, shit, what’s the point of worrying when you are 18 and embroiled in an accelerated growing up period accentuated with wild highs and hedonism, and girls. Very few would intentionally step off the good times bus when the destination is uncertain but the thrill of the journey is so intensely pleasurable. For some though, the end of the road is not where they expected to be.

Peter was known by a different name in jail – “Pedro”. He wasn’t Mexican. I thought at first that he was inside for a cocaine charge – hence the nickname – but he was simply a burglar with too much need for ready cash and too little sense. I don’t know where the nickname came from but people shouted it out of cell windows at Peter and laughed the laugh of people with the secret.

Peter was slim, tall, with a wild afro and large, goofy, teeth. I guess he was around 30 years old. The other lads would goad him in the free association periods and he’d jibber and jabber like some wild South American parrot and then break dance – badly – to screams of laughter. I could never get any sense out of him, even on his own and with a lot of prompting. Suddenly, mid sentence, Peter would break off and start swan diving onto the floor shouting things like “It’s the fucking sky maaaaaan”. He shouldn’t have been inside. He needed help, not the thousand-strong crowd of gawpers and fans.

His neighbour in the next cell – Shep – summed it up: “Pedro was famous round our way in Sheffield. He was a cool, cool, kid once but he just took too many mushrooms and that was it, his brain was fried. Next thing you knew he’d attack people for no reason and start yelling and screaming about aliens.” Pedro was the only person I knew who looked to be enjoying his time in there. There was no other proof I needed of mental illness than that, only the seriously damaged could get any joy or comfort from prison. But you couldn’t trust amateur prison diagnosis, from the inmates, and especially from the staff. But Shep wasn’t wide of the mark.

Shep hated the police, and I mean HATED them. I suspected that he hated every single person remotely connected with authority too, including me, even though I didn’t have an ounce of authority in my body. On the back of one of his hands was a tattoo of a severed pig’s head wearing a police helmet and the words “the only good pig is a dead pig”. One evening he sidled up to me and whispered hoarsely “I need a local map drawn on a silk handkerchief, a French phrasebook, and some peasants clothing. The tunnel is nearly complete,” then he walked slowly away giving theatrical shakes of his leg to simulate dirt falling from the bottoms of his trousers. He’d buddied up with a guy from Pakistan and they both planned to travel to Kashmir when they were released to fight against India. “I’m spiritually Pakistani,” Shep told me.

Eventually the prison doctor decided to section Shep, the irony being that Pedro still held his own breakdancing competition nightly, saliva spraying from his jabbering mouth, without anyone batting an eyelid. But, like Shep had predicted to me weeks before, Pedro wouldn’t last. About a week after Shep was led sheepishly away to the hospital Pedro attacked another prisoner for apparently no reason and was taken to places unknown. He never surfaced again.

For reasons that never became clear, prison was full of people who should have been afforded better mental health care. It was sad to see so many clearly ill people thrashing wildly about in the system. Nobody got treated with any degree of care. And most of the problems appeared to be from some psychotic reaction to something synthetic they’d taken in better times.

Buy the ticket, take the ride? Yeah, maybe, and I’d still encourage anyone to do whatever they felt they needed to just to get by, but the cost of a safer trip is sometimes more than you and I can afford. I still, to this day, debate whether my intake of hard drugs was responsible for the problems I faced in later life. But on warm summer evenings in the Caribbean, when the rum is flowing and tree frogs are calling, they all feel very, very, far away. Would I have changed it all, gone back and become something else? Nope. Would Pedro? Would you?



Drugs are a dangerous business. Especially heroin. But dealing and using heroin combine to make the ultimate tightrope career and life path. It dredges up problems you and I can only begin to imagine- well, maybe I’ve got an advantage there. And those kind of problems aren’t static, shit is always handed down the ladder, usually to the user.

Andy was a heroin dealer who lived in a terraced house in the town. He was covered in crap tattoos, had been around the block many times, and was a kind of living legend, he was ultra old school. Andy used to sit right by his front door all day with a length of motorbike chain and a machete. He’d used them on occasion. I suspected there was a gun in the property but unlike another client of mine he wasn’t stupid enough to go brandishing it about when I was there. Andy’s dog was a furious Staffordshire Bull Terrier that hated almost everyone it met. It was called Starchild and was about as far from the hippy ethos as it was possible for any dog to get – without stepping too far into anthropomorphic territory. When Andy’s house was raided by the police once – which was a periodic event, and treated simply as a hazard of the job – Starchild ran into the kitchen and bit a police officer on the leg. The officer needed 3 stitches and went off work for six months. Eventually Andy received a letter from the Police Officer’s private solicitor saying he was seeking around six thousand pounds of damages from Andy – who didn’t have a pot to piss in despite dealing heroin. It was ludicrous. Still, Starchild and Andy evaded prosecution and the RSPCA. They were like a streetwise, dangerous, and raggedy, Roscoe P Coltrane and “Flash”. They survived Andy’s massive – even by dealer standards – heroin habit, police raids and, once, even a shoot-out in the street with some Yardies from a nearby city. But more than all of that, Starchild loved me. I couldn’t go round to the house without having to play fetch with him for twenty minutes. Each time I knocked on the front door I’d hear Starchild barking and trying to bite his way through the door, until Andy shouted “Come in Ben,” and the growling would stop. I’d open the door to a brown ball of knotted muscle wagging its tail. Who knows why that dog felt that way. I’m just glad I didn’t join the “bitten” list – which included the police, two postmen, a probation officer, and god knows how many sickly customers. There I’d sit with Starchild on my lap as embarrassed punters nervously entered and left the house, nodding awkwardly to me (most users in the town knew who I was), and staying as far from the demon dog as possible. He’d leap off and chase a rattling heroin user out of the house then return to me, wagging his tail, and lick my face. I never worked it out.

Andy was liked and respected in the heroin community for three main reasons – 1) He never sold you heroin if he thought that money should really be feeding your kids, 2) You always knew where you stood with Andy, he wasn’t a bullshitter, 3) he always had the product. But Andy was part of a dying breed.

Ian was from Liverpool. He had been shot six times, all in the same sitting, and was in jail for some drug related shenanigans. They’d moved him far away from Liverpool for his own protection. Ian had a small heroin problem himself and was seeing me in the jail to try and sort everything out prior to him being shipped out to HMP DunThieving somewhere down south where he was witness in some large drug trial.

“You know it’s easy, dealing smack,” he once said. “All you do is buy it, cut it, sell it on.” Cutting it – or “bashing it up” – was the key to profits and some were really good at it, using vitamin c powder, or milk powder, something fairly safe and pure. Others would crush up paracetamol and bake it, or use brick dust, tinned furniture polish, or chalk, the list is endless. But Ian, without a doubt, won the cup for Most Depraved and Uncaring Dealer I’d ever met.

“So, one day, yeah, we’re bashing up a key of brown (kilo of heroin) and I had to nip out to get some fags. We’re in Toxteth right, in a terrace house. So I’m walking along and I’ve bought the fags and a few beers and I’m just getting to the door and I look down on the pavement and there’s this big pile of dog shit, only about ten foot from the front door of the house. And this might sound bad, but this thought started going through my head – what if….? Anyway, I go inside and dump the shopping then I come back outside with a cardboard box – a cereal box – and I scoop up some of this dog shit into the box. When I brought it back inside the lads were doing their nut but I just told them to watch. Then I put it on a dish and banged it in the microwave for about ten minutes. It fucking stunk up the place but after ten minutes it had sort of dried out, like crispy, you know. I took it out and pounded it up in a pestle and mortar, then we tipped it into the heroin,” he was laughing really hard, “and the smackheads who bought that gear afterwards would be injecting dogshit.” Tears of laughter were rolling down his cheeks.

It’s not something Andy would have considered, but it’s a sign of the times. Zammo would be turning in his grave. Just another reason to say no kids.

I got Andy into detox, twice, and he stayed the course the second time despite hearing the staff saying he was a waste of space and time. When I picked him up he looked a beacon of health and we hugged before I drove him home. I was so happy to see him getting straight. We went back to his house, where his girlfriend was waiting. She had promised to get herself clean while Andy was in detox but when she opened the door she stumbled over the step and slurred her welcome. She looked more fucked up than before Andy had left. He saw her and sighed inevitably.

In less than a week he was using again. What chance did he have? His brother had taken care of the  business operation while Andy was away and had gone and got himself arrested with three grams of brown. I went round and tried to convince Andy he’d end up getting really sick or doing another long stretch but he just laughed it off and prepped some more foil. Starchild wagged his tail and kept on destroying his “indestructible dog ball”.

The films all tell you “Don’t get high on your own supply,” and maybe that’s good advice for the entrepreneur, but Andy didn’t sell to make money, he sold to support his own habit. There, in that dingy and dirty house, he had everything he’d ever need – a tv, sofa, tinfoil, and heroin. “We’re not so different you and me,” he said, “we’re both just trying to get through life as best we can.” Maybe he was right? Who am I to choose someones poison for them? Andy was providing a service to people making choices – albeit bad ones – that’s all. Anyhow, the police would stop him sooner or later, they weren’t stupid. They’d enforce the law and keep everyone safe from the horror of heroin. The law says heroin and anyone who touches it in any way is a criminal. It’s not a Class A drug for no reason eh?

We sat and talked about both of our futures and how both of us got where we are through similar, though wildly differing paths. Andy smoked a few lines. “Sorry Ben, are you ok with me doing this when you’re here?” he always asked me this question when he was smoking heroin. I never told him I had used the drug myself but one addict can always tell another. It’s like some form of cold mutual magnetism. “I know you’ve used,” he’d say, “I don’t mean to make things difficult for you.” I liked Andy. He was a good guy in a shitty world. I went to go and he opened the door and patted me on the shoulder “I always enjoy our chats,” he said, before looking up and down the road.

Outside, down the street, the local undercover police sat in an unmarked car. They couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d been dancing along the pavement playing Samba music and dressed as Mexican Gaucho’s. We both waved at them as I left.